There is a time, before we can read, when our lives are an open book. Before we are unleashed on our neighborhood we learn about privacy; we learn that some things—usually facts about money—are to be kept within the family. Then, long before we are emotionally mature, we learn about secrets—the kind a family keeps from other people, and the kind it keeps from itself. We do not have to know what these secrets are to feel the strain of not talking about them. They are often tied up with love or the lack of it, or are concerned with personal identity: they are about “sisters” who are mothers, “nephews” who are sons, they are about adoption and false paternity, and those people like absconding fathers who are written out of a family’s narrative but who lurk below eye level, like a footnote which one day someone will want to consult.

John Lanchester, a critic and the author of three well-received novels, reminds us that “Nietzsche said that ignorance is as structured as knowledge.” In family matters this seems strikingly true. The study of the organization, management, and protection of family secrets is a discrete discipline, with memoirs as its textbooks. But we fail to learn from each other. We are amazed when anomalies within our own family come to light. When Lanchester’s mother died in 1998, the first sentence of her will ran “I ask that my body be buried.” He missed this and had her cremated. What makes an eminent author and critic unable to read a simple sentence? He was in shock because “five days after she died, I had found out that both the name and the date of birth I had known my mother by were false.” The reader is intrigued; fathers who lie about their past are almost routine, but mothers usually find it harder to cover their tracks. Asked by the priest who buried the ashes what he would like written on her gravestone, the author said he would go away and think about it. This book is the result of his pondering.

Lanchester is an only child, born in Hamburg in 1962, and educated at an English boarding school and at Oxford. His father Bill was employed for thirty years by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and the family were professional expatriates. At home, Bill never mentioned money, as if the subject were not only in bad taste but actively painful to him. His son describes him as a

gentle, soft-spoken, intelligent man, shortish and roundish and well-dressed and friendly…good-natured and straightforward in manner and externally so conformist…one of the dreamiest, most inward people I have known, one whom reality affected only when it intruded on his inner world by force.

He is, then, an odd type of father to find in a memoir, a great change from the usual parade of sadists and wasters. Bill was warmhearted and humorous, but there was one problem: “He was capable of extraordinary feats of not noticing….” One thing he chose (mostly) not to notice was his own unhappiness. He was defending himself from the knowledge that he had made wrong choices in his life and that it was too late to undo them.

Bill’s bank shuffled its workers constantly from post to post and the reader loses count of the number of moves the family makes—to Rangoon, to Calcutta, to Borneo. These locations sound exotic, but to the family they are somehow the same place, living as they do within the ambit of a few expatriate families and their strained mores. There is change, but no variety. The family is secure within itself, but can’t put down roots. Nor had they the kind of uncomplicated ancestry which enabled them to make little Englands wherever they went, for they were not English. Lanchester’s mother was Irish, and so from a tradition of emigration. Bill had grown up in what was then Rhodesia. His own father, Jack, was a dentist who had studied in Chicago, and who moved his family to Hong Kong. Jack’s whole life had been a search for financial security, and it was he who insisted that Bill subordinate his imagination to become a company man.

In 1940, in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, many women and children were evacuated from the colony. Bill’s mother Lannie chose to stay with her husband, and Bill himself, aged fourteen, was sent to Australia. After the invasion the following year, Jack and Lannie were interned. During his years as a boarder at Melbourne Grammar School Bill hardly ever wrote to his parents, though letters to the camps were permitted and sometimes got through. His feelings have to be reconstructed from absence and silence. It is hard to send a letter into a void, to write to people who may be dead, and even when he heard that his parents had survived the immediate dangers of invasion, he may have suspected they would not survive the camps, where conditions were atrocious. Lack of medicines and a starvation diet killed many, and left others permanently broken in health. One of the couple’s closest friends, who was involved in a covert resistance operation, was tortured and beheaded with his comrades before the eyes of the internees.


Lannie managed to keep a fragmentary diary. It is clear to John Lanchester that both his grandparents behaved with unselfish bravery. But why were they and their fellow prisoners in the camp at all? These years later, evidence has emerged that their suffering was factored into Britain’s political ambitions. The Canadians negotiated a deal with the Japanese to repatriate their prisoners, but the British, the author says, wanted their internees to stay put, “so that the flag would be promptly raised again over the colony at the end of the war…. I’m glad my grandparents never lived to find that out.”

John Lanchester chose Hong Kong as the setting for his third, much-applauded novel, Fragrant Harbor, and drew indirectly on his family history in a story that began in the 1930s and ran until Britain’s handover of the colony to China in 1997. The story has many strands, but the central narrative concerns a young English adventurer called Patrick Stewart, who goes east to make his fortune, and who meets on the voyage a Chinese nun with whom he falls in love. The book is ambitious, epic in quality, but to this reader the characters seem disengaged, incomplete, as if their creator can determine and describe their actions but doesn’t understand why they do what he’s made them do. Still less, on the page, do they understand themselves; Patrick is characterized as a man numbed by fate.

Now, enlightened by Family Romance, the reader can imagine why it had to be so. The author was exploring his own family, perhaps writing—as novelists do—in the hope of learning something, making slippery notions graspable. But war and absence had created emotional distance between his father Bill and his own parents; and Bill himself is chronically evasive, a man without much grasp of his own workings. Part of the fascination of this memoir is tracing the evolution of the author’s capacity to commit words to the page, while in his childhood “some dots were scattered around, and I was given an opportunity, if I felt so inclined, to connect them.” When the young John was away at boarding school in England, Bill suffered a heart attack; the boy was not told about it, even though his father’s health was permanently affected: “…as far as I knew, he was having an operation on his feet. Is it possible that my mother wrote to me about his heart and I misread the word as ‘feet’?” When he reached puberty his father told him an anecdote about a rowing team he had once known in Melbourne; years later, he understood that it was Bill’s effort to talk to him about sex.

If his father’s youth was simply obscured, by a kind of refined indifference, a soft-shoe shuffle around the facts, his mother’s past was quite deliberately hidden. Perhaps he should have assembled certain clues and hints, which made her life story not quite fit together. Julie—as she called herself—was often lively and funny. She was also a mistress of “sulking, silence, distance, and omission.” Born Julia Gunnigan, in Mayo in the west of Ireland, she was a bright girl, the star of her family, who were poor farmers. Lanchester writes thoughtfully and unsentimentally about her background, and about the Irish landscape, the boggy featureless country away from the tourist beauty spots. The place has a talent for looking like nowhere, like wilderness, yet its place names are witness to a history of intensive settlement. He notes that there were almost ten million people in Ireland before the Famine, which made it one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Even today, it has only regained 40 percent of that population. A ghastly history is encoded in these statistics, and it is far from unrecorded. Eloquent testaments to poverty, disease, and ignorance can, cast into book form, be made to pay their way; Lanchester comments on the evolution of the Irish misery memoir with the detached wryness of a man who never fears excess emotion will disrupt his own nuanced and well-judged prose.

Julie’s escape from the farm was by way of a scholarship to a convent school. When she was sixteen, in 1937, she became a postulant in a convent in County Wexford. At this distance, it is hard for her son to understand her motivation—did she really believe she had a religious vocation, or was she forcing the point? She was the eldest of a family of eight, of whom seven were girls. Where were they to find husbands, in a society where acreage and livestock were the currency of romance? Four of the Gunnigan girls became nuns. A call to the religious life not only gave a family prestige, it relieved them of a mouth to feed.


The order that Julie joined was called the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The film The Magdalene Sisters has made them notorious as the overseers of the brutal institutions which held young women who had given birth to illegitimate children or who had in some way offended the prevailing ethos in the narrow-hearted, authoritarian Ireland of the time. The convents, Lanchester says, repressed the nuns almost as thoroughly as they repressed those in their care. “The story that has not been told…is of the cruelty and violence that took place among the nuns who ran them.” This cruelty was psychological. It was a process of stultification of intellect and the breaking of individual will. The author has a letter that the sixteen-year-old postulant wrote to her younger sister on her twelfth birthday, and of all the documents he reproduces for the reader it is the most strange and affecting, for this sparky little girl can only trot out a few broken-backed, repetitive phrases:

I hope that you will enjoy your birthday very much and that you will get very nice things for it.

Thanks very much for your nice letter…. I had a letter from Mary [their sister] on Tuesday and she told me that she got you a lovely new red coat and that you are well able to swank it…. I got a box of sweets from Mary too—wasn’t she great? God bless her….

I will again wish you a very happy birthday….

The letter includes a wish that Bernie will enter the convent too: “Bernie dear if you did come you would never be sorry.” But when Julie had been in the convent a year, and was about to take the vows that would admit her to the novitiate, she got appendicitis. She was allowed to go home to her family to convalesce. She was treated as a heroine, and the attention and flattery weakened her resolve. She decided she could not go back. Unable to face telling her family, she wrote to the superior of the convent, who in turn wrote to her parents. Julie’s sister Peggy believes the superior’s letter to have been a model of good sense and restraint, acknowledging that her postulant was very young and that if she had any doubts it was wisest for her to leave at this point. The poor child soon learned how fond her family was. She was treated as disgraced, a pariah. Presumably her own clothes had been given away, and there was no money to buy new; whether through absolute poverty, or through an allied desire to humiliate her, the family made her wear her black postulant’s dress, to be sneered at by the district, the “ex-nun.”

John Lanchester believes that this was a crucial point in his mother’s life. It is a crucial point in Family Romance, one of the most gripping developments the author has to record. His mother clearly saw its potential too, because she fictionalized her early convent experience in a short story she wrote more than twenty years later, which was broadcast on BBC radio. But there is no short story to help her son reconstruct what Julie did next. For almost three years, beginning in 1941, she cut herself off from her family. Just after her eighteenth birthday she had been rescued from her unhappy situation at home; a relative who was a priest raised the funds to send her to a Dublin hospital to train to be a nurse. But her visits home made it clear to her that her family were not going to let her forget how she had disgraced them. She left her hospital job, and moved on with no forwarding address. Cutting herself adrift in this way was, her son says, “one of the things she would come to do best.”

She went to work, it seems, in a TB sanatorium, contracted the disease, become a patient, and fell in love with a fellow patient, who was Protestant and from a comfortably-off family. They became engaged, he seemed to be recovering, then his condition deteriorated suddenly and he died. Only one photograph of him remains, and Julie never mentioned his name. Lanchester compares him to Michael Furey, the lost consumptive boy in Joyce’s most haunting story, “The Dead.” A malign turn of fate was now added to Julie’s experience of being rejected and stigmatized by her own family. It made her a person who “would turn people away before she gave them a chance to turn her away.” But her immediate need was to belong somewhere, and to find some meaning in the young man’s death. In the spring of 1944 she became a postulant once more, in a Galway convent of the Presentation Sisters. This time, she stuck to the life, and became in due time Sister Eucharia. The family reaction? “…Cries of relief all round.”

Sister Eucharia was a great success. She had joined a missionary order, as had her younger sister Peggy. But Peggy had got only as far as the prosaic English town of Matlock, whereas Julie ended up in Madras, a college principal. By 1958 she again wanted to leave, worn down not by loss of faith but by the vow of obedience, the lifelong surrender to petty rules that it often entailed, and by “common life,” which permitted a nun no material possessions, and hardly permitted her to have thoughts of her own. It was twenty years since her first flight, so she had given her vocation a fair trial.

It was a tortuous process for a nun who had taken final vows to get her dispensation from Rome. To imagine this crisis in her life, her son has to enlist the help of escapee nuns from different eras who have written about their ordeal: Monica Baldwin (I Leap Over the Wall) and Karen Armstrong (The Spiral Staircase). Peggy had already left the convent for marriage and a teaching job in London, and it was to her that Julie looked for help and advice in recreating herself as a woman in the world. In her letters Sister Eucharia had to adopt the persona of one “T. Leetch,” a family friend in need of help. She nagged relentlessly, almost comically, about the details of her passage to a colder climate, but it required courage to go out into the world with a suitcase, a plane ticket, her traveling expenses, and no goodbyes. She was thirty-eight years old.

Writers’ families, though they don’t know it, are always auditioning for their part in the books to come. In this memoir, it’s the Gunnigans who generate the close-knit spite and emotional violence that makes them successful players. But did Bill and his money-minded father pay their debt to art with Lanchester’s second novel, Mr. Phillips? At the center of this novel is an accountant who has lost his job. He has not been able to face telling his family. Each day he sets off to walk about the city and pass what should be his working hours, fantasizing, observing the busy lives of others, returning home with nothing resolved. The last sentence is “He has no idea what will happen next.” It is a sympathetic study in emotional insufficiency, and in the passive suffering of a loss that can hardly be calculated. The reader is prepared for some bafflement to ensue when Bill the banker, on leave in London, falls in love with the runaway nun, who is one year out of her convent. How will the evader of strong emotion cope with the unruly psyche of a woman who has been psychologically imprisoned, and now wants to have her own way for the first time in her life? We half-expect Bill to run away. Nothing could prepare us for Julie’s great lie.

Knowing that Bill wanted children, and believing he would be put off by her age—she was now forty—she

sent off to the Irish Record Office and asked for a copy of the birth certificate of her sister Dilly, who was a full nine years younger than she. Then she used that birth certificate to apply for British citizenship, and lo and behold, Julia Immaculata Gunnigan became Bridget Teresa Gunnigan…. It is the name on my birth certificate—so the person named there as my mother is in reality my aunt Dilly.

But if her name was Bridget, why was she known as Julia, or Julie? To explain this she concocted a bit offamily lore; she was meant to be called Julia, but “the story goes that when my birth was registered either my father or the local registrar were drunk (or both were)….” She was, Lanchester tells us, a woman with “the strongest imaginable views on the subject of lying and liars,” yet she filched her little sister’s identity and kept it forever, at the price of a necessary distance from her own family that can never have ceased to be a strain. On the face of it, no harm was done. The sister whose name she stole was a Mayo housewife and in time a mother of eight. She wasn’t going anywhere, and would not be needing a British passport. But it wasn’t a simple ruse, one she could put behind her: “…the impact of her choice on her life kept mounting, and ramifying, and corroding her relationships and her sense of self.” But at the time, it got her what she most wanted. Bill married her. Did he ever have suspicions, and avoid facing them? In her photographs she is an attractive woman, but she looks her age; on the other hand, who could imagine such an elaborate deception, backed up by official paperwork? She was right in guessing that carrying a child would prove difficult for her. She had four miscarriages. The one surviving child of the marriage was the author. “If my mother had not lied I would never have been born.”

We are two thirds of the way through the memoir before the self-effacing author makes his entrance, a “postcolonial boy,” a child of an empire that was folding up around his family. The later chapters trace his path through his successful academic career and the writing of his first, prize-winning novel, The Debt to Pleasure. He was an anxious, imaginative child, who now sees that anxiety as part of his creative process—though he has had to undergo a few years of psychotherapy to rid him of fulminating panic attacks. To write, “I feel I need all of me, even the parts I don’t want.” His accommodation to mental pain is something his father would not have understood; he was dedicated to avoiding it. Though Bill did well in his career, he never reached the top of the bank’s hierarchy. He took early retirement, moved to England, and made the inexplicable decision to buy a house in an insular, hostile, and unlovely East Anglian village. He died at fifty-seven, of a sudden heart attack. Julie stayed for years in a “cavern of grief,” despising anyone who offered her pity. What had happened to her own brief career as a writer? She had the leisure to pursue it, and seemingly had the ability. Lanchester says that “to write is…to move beyond the role and the self into an encounter with something much more bare and exposing, unstructured and unsupported.” He thinks that is why Julie couldn’t do it; she was afraid of revealing herself to the world and moving beyond the role of wife and mother she had so painfully constructed.

Lanchester says that “by temperament as well as by training, I squash things down rather than blurt them out.” Someone who undertakes a family memoir may be said to have taken a decision in favor of “blurting,” but his style, conversational and workmanlike, could never be so described. He is devoted to getting the story straight, and it is his candor, modesty, and sincerity that make Family Romance so absorbing. One of his conclusions about life is that people seldom take clear-cut decisions but prefer to “bumble along,” and his book does bumble, from time to time; it could be shorter. It could be sharper too, but that is not his way; he has arrived at insight without anger, and his conclusion—typically rueful, understated—is that he is writing to capture someone’s attention, and that someone is his mother. Julie died in 1998, at the age of seventy-seven. Her last words to him, even as he stood in front of her, were “I do miss you, you know.”

This Issue

April 12, 2007